Catherine Epstein. The Last Revolutionaries: German Communists and Their Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003. xii + 322. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-01045-1.
Reviewed by Eric D. Weitz (Department of History, University of Minnesota)
Published on H-German (October, 2003)
Catherine Epstein had a great idea when she decided to focus her book on the lives of eight long-time communists who, at one time or another, played leading roles in the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and its successor, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). The result is a study marked by an engaging narrative, as well as by thorough research and analytical sharpness.
Epstein's interpretation is easily stated: the SED and the German Democratic Republic (DDR) were not simply Soviet creations. Throughout its history, the DDR was ruled by men and (a very few) women, who had joined the KPD in the Weimar Republic and whose lives were shaped by the conflicts and catastrophes of the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany. Even when some of them suffered political disgrace in the 1950s and 1960s, they remained committed communists. Anti-capitalist to their core and convinced that the Third Reich was simply a more repressive form of capitalism (the old Comintern definition), they gave to the DDR its rigidity and repressiveness. Even when some of them sought to depose of Walter Ulbricht in the 1950s, their opposition was hardly based on a liberal or social democratic worldview. They were simply communists engaging in what they knew best: factional strife. It is no surprise, then, that a leadership so firmly rooted in the German and Russian 1920s and 1930s could fall, in the 1980s, so far out of step with its own population.
The research for The Last Revolutionaries is based especially on the personnel files in the Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massenorganisation der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik im Bundesarchiv, along with other relevant archives. Beginning in the 1960s, the party encouraged veteran communists to write memoirs, most of which were not published and were collected in the party archive. Although written in a highly formulaic manner, Epstein figured out how to read them creatively. And read them she did--for the dissertation from which her book develops, the author had created a sample of over nine hundred veteran communists.
The chapters of The Last Revolutionaries move along chronologically. Within the histories of communists in Weimar, the repression they endured in the Nazi period, their engagement with the building of the DDR, and so on, Epstein weaves in and out the lives of her eight subjects: Franz Dahlem, Gerhart Eisler, Erich Honecker, Emmy Koenen, Fred Oelssner, Karl Schirdewan, Fritz Selbmann, and Walter Ulbricht. Some of these names would be known only to those preoccupied with the history of the KPD and SED. Aside from Eisler, all of them came from working-class backgrounds. They were archetypical activists for whom the party provided an avenue of mobility and self-articulation, though they also willingly subjected themselves to the disciplinary rigors demanded by communist parties. All of them occupied positions near or at the very top of the KPD/SED and the DDR, all would suffer defeats in internal party conflicts, even, at the very end, Erich Honecker. Collectively they all suffered from Nazi persecution. Koenen and Eisler went into exile in the West, Oelssner and Ulbricht in the Soviet Union, while Dahlem, Schirdewan, Selbmann, and Honecker survived various Nazi prisons and concentration camps. They led disciplined communist lives, which meant that they also tolerated the party's intensive scrutiny and manipulation of their biographies. The portraits of Dahlem, Koenen, and Schirdewan are particularly interesting. Dahlem was a tough, street-wise party organizer, already a Politburo member in the 1930s. He witnessed the show trial of Nikolai Bukharin in Moscow and served as political commissar of the International Brigades in Spain. He was interned with other Interbrigadists in France after the end of the Spanish Civil War, then was taken by the Gestapo in 1942. Presumed dead by many party comrades, Dahlem managed to survive Mauthausen, and afterwards quickly resumed his position in the top leadership of the party. Driven from power by Ulbricht in 1953, Dahlem occupied only minor offices for the next two decades. Epstein is certainly correct to point out that, try as one might, it is hard to find any serious ideological conflict between the two. Instead, Dahlem was simply a victim of the power politics of communist parties. His memoirs of 1938-39 were actually published in the DDR, but a more elliptical addendum surfaced only after the collapse. Despite his travails at the hands of his own party, Dahlem remained a committed communist all his long life.
As was typical for these communists, Emmy Koenen came from a working-class family. Her father was a metalworker and alcoholic who beat her, her mother worked in traditionally female occupations--cook, seamstress, washerwoman. She joined the KPD in the early 1920s and like most female communists, was active in various women's organizations and campaigns. She fled first to Moscow after the Nazi takeover, then was assigned party tasks in the West, and ultimately landed in Britain. Koenen's life is emblematic of communists who went into exile in the West. The relocation did little, Epstein argues (against many other writers on German communism) to moderate their anti-capitalist, anti-liberal views. While Koenen was spared the experience of Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet Gulag, she did suffer internment, deportation, and continual surveillance as an "enemy alien" in Great Britain. These experiences did not endear the capitalist west to her. Thrilled to return to a Germany that was, in part, under Soviet occupation, she threw herself into the reconstruction of the communist women's movement. But like Dahlem, she too was shoved aside by politically more adept colleagues, though, again like Dahlem, her political misfortunes never caused her to question her commitment to the party. For Epstein, Koenen's career is representative also of the marginal role of most women in the party.
Abandoned as a child, Karl Schirdewan spent his early years in orphanages and foster homes. Like so many youth of the Weimar Republic, he bounced around among different jobs and experienced long periods of unemployment. He became a leader of the communist youth movement, and, after 1933, was active in the anti-Nazi resistance. Arrested in 1934, he endured numerous Nazi prisons and concentration camps and torture at the hands of the Gestapo. Schirdewan ended up in Sachsenhausen and Flossenbürg, where he became a leader of communist inmates. Especially since 1989-90 it has become clear that the activities of communists at Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, and other camps were ambiguous at best: they protected their own, with sometimes dire consequences for other inmates. After 1945 Schirdewan rose rapidly in the party and state ranks and became a leader of the opposition to Ulbricht in 1956. But Ulbricht out-maneuvered him, and like Dahlem and Koenen, Schirdewan was relegated to minor positions.
Epstein's portraits and analyses are sharply honed. However, her depiction of German communists is at times overly monolithic. She is correct to argue that none of these individuals was liberal-minded; all remained committed to the communist leitmotif of unending struggle against capitalism, which always necessitated, in their view, a highly disciplined party and state. Still, we simply do not know how far the force of circumstances would have pushed Schirdewan or others down the path of reform had they been able to depose Ulbricht. I am not convinced that communists were moved mostly by their deep hostility to capitalism and not also by an "egalitarian or humanitarian vision of the world" (p. 42). There are moments when I longed for some deeper psychological probings of her eight figures. Admittedly, that is a difficult task--communists were not prone to such musings, indeed, the very idea of autobiography was long anathema to them and only with great reservations did some of her individuals follow the party's call in the 1960s for memoir-writing. Still, one wonders about family lives beyond the obvious point that the rigors of political commitment often played havoc with love relations. How did the experience of child abandonment (Schirdewan) or beatings (Koenen) shape their relationships to their children (assuming they had children)? How did they live with the memories of their own sufferings and, perhaps, the guilt about their comrades and even family members who had been executed in the Soviet terror or had died in Soviet prisons? Did communists ever laugh and smile, or are the typical photographs of grim-faced bureaucrats expressive of the way they also lived their daily lives? What did the author herself think when (in my favorite moment in the book) another veteran communist, Alfred Neumann, responds to her characterization of 1989 by saying, "Girl, girl, that was no revolution--that was a counterrevolutionary uprising" (p. 256)?
In the end, Epstein has written an evocative portrait of German communists, their hopes and defeats, the ideals for which they suffered and the injustices they promoted. As she writes, "theirs was the tragedy of expectations unmet, dreams unfulfilled, and utopias unrealized" (p. 15). It is a twentieth-century German story.
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Eric D. Weitz. Review of Epstein, Catherine, The Last Revolutionaries: German Communists and Their Century.
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Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.